Updates from my Albania trip are being posted daily on my new FelixUltimate Facebook page – read about how I’m working together with the 10 Million Discs global charity to introduce Ultimate at the grass roots level by running sessions with PE teachers, NGOs, and youth groups from around the country.
On 10th-19th April Felix will be travelling around Albania with the 10 Million Discs charity!
Along with Trent Simmons, Jason Morrison and Juan Amado, I will be delivering 3 sessions to High School PE teachers, 3 sessions to NGOs including to staff & detainees at Juvenile prison in Kavaje, 2 youth sessions, a training with a paraplegic community / wheelchair group, and an afternoon playing with Embassy staff + Marines, amongst other activities and meetings to set Ultimate into action in Albania in a big way.
Check back for updates!
(c) Felix Shardlow v.1.01 29th March 2017
Also available in French / en Français (v0.97)
Flexagon Defence is not a zone, nor is it strictly person-to-person defence. Flex employs local positioning guidelines to reduce offensive advantage wherever possible. Where zonal marking utilises role-based teamwork and dynamic positioning; person-to-person defence employs simple positioning rules and focuses on athleticism; Flex utilises a set of principles which encourage defenders to work as a team, dynamically recognising any offensive mistakes or inefficiencies and attempting to punish them to gain advantage.
In Ultimate, offence by default has a huge advantage, and if they play very well then it’s very difficult for any defence to stop them from scoring. Actively gaining advantage on defence requires the ability to recognise offensive mistakes, and then utilise a combination of teamwork, positioning, and athleticism to capitalise.
The 3 Flex Principles
- Switch / surround where appropriate
- Cover all offensive players as a team
- eye contact – keep your head up – positional information is shared & acknowledged, chances for miscommunication reduced
- gesticulation – keep your eyes open – pointing, indicating
- vocalisation – keep your ears open – push/pull shouts to move teammates
Never concede a point in silence
Switch / surround where appropriate
- Prepare to switch marks early – pre-empt offensive movement if possible, as late / reactive switches only limit damage – they do not necessarily gain advantage for the defence
- Prepare to switch marks when opponents move towards occupied areas
- Switch if mutually beneficial for defenders
- Only leave your mark if you know they will be covered, and you know who you will be covering next
- Surround offensive players when there is no space between two or more opponents
- Surround with the same number of defenders as there are offensive players
- If there is space between all offensive players, and their movement cannot be punished with switches, mark person-to-person until the opportunity to switch or surround arises
Offensive players who are double-covering space or moving towards occupied areas are making mistakes – be prepared to punish them to gain advantage!
Cover all offensive players as a team
- All individuals should be marking one specific player unless surrounding
- Leave no offensive player unmarked
- Get help if trying to cover two players
- Avoid defensive double-coverage
- Avoid poaching (leaving a player unmarked)
- Poaches are false-positive signals to other defenders which cause a breakdown of Flex due to chain reaction
The offensive team have the same number of players as the defence – and one of their players isn’t allowed to move!
Flex doesn’t have a prescribed shape or formation, as the local positioning of the defenders is entirely dependant upon the positioning of the offensive players. However, if the theory of both offence and defence in Ultimate are explored to depths, a hexagon (or rotatable 2-3-2) shape emerges as most efficient use of space by 7 players.
Calling initial positions can be useful if a Flex team is not finding enough opportunities to switch or surround the opposition, as it puts them into a more ‘zone-like’ mindset where they will be more actively looking for switching and surrounding opportunities. Conversely, if a Flex team is surrounding too loosely, or is reduced to poaching, calling initial match-ups on the line can encourage them to adopt a more person-to-person mindset.
If calling positions, by default: 2 forwards, 2 wings, 2 backs, 1 hat (central player).
If your opponent is playing horizontal stack it’s recommended you start with person-to-person marking, but if calling positions: 3 forwards, 2 wings, 1 hat, 1 back.
The terms “forward” and “back” refer to how you see the field when on the line before a point – “forwards” are comparable to “handler marks”, “backs” are comparable to “deeps”.
Remember that Flex is not a zone, and position calling should only be used to encourage more switching and surrounding – not as an excuse for poaching, which directly goes against the principle of covering all offensive players as a team.
The force – recommended: if the disc is near the middle force straight-up, if the disc is near the sideline force towards the line – this leaves defenders on either shoulder of the force in all situations. The force is not a critical part of Flex – it can often be left til last when making sure all offensive players are covered, and it can change depending on opponents / conditions. As Flex is not a zone, there should certainly not be a player chasing the disc and putting on multiple forces in a row (unless you have incorporated an advanced switching system into your Flex).
Flex in action against FWD at Europeans – fast forward to 37:48:
In October I was contacted by Fergus Klein, Chairperson of the Gauteng Flying Disc Association. Ferg graduated from Sussex (Mohawks) in 2014 and unbeknown to me had stayed heavily involved in Ultimate. The GFDA were looking for a coach to come over to up the level of the game in the region, which typically lags a little behind Cape Town, so I said I was keen to get involved! Ellie Tournier (GFDA Secretary) immediately got to work in planning fundraising efforts and making a packed schedule to make the most of every day I would be in SA. We coordinated to make this awesome video which tells a little about the history of Ultimate in South Africa, and the short and long-term aims for my trip:
I’ll break my report into three sections: Frisbee, Socio-economic-political environment, and Nature.
Teams in the Gauteng region of South Africa play in a weekly mixed league consisting of 6 teams; two from the local universities – Wits and Zone Rangers (Tuks + graduates, from Pretoria), two teams which have developed from outreach efforts – Soweto and Orange Farm, plus Skyveld (originally Wits graduates), and last year’s champions Ultitude Grey Wolves.
Separation between university and club teams seems to be similar to how it was 15-20 years ago in the UK – i.e, university teams often enter club-level tournaments, and players who have graduated continue to play for them – or form their own team of graduates. For example, SA Nationals last year was won by the University of Cape Town (who play Hex Offence).
Whilst in SA I had the pleasure of running sessions with most of these teams, plus extended advanced clinics during my final weekend aimed at higher level players, and potential coaches.
I ran two sessions at the University of the Witswatersrand. They’re a fun group who haven’t been doing too well in the league recently, and have suffered a bit in the last few years from changes in personel and leaders. For the first session, their captain Paul had requested I teach horizontal stack, so I put together a comprehensive 3hr session which drilled all the major aspects of the offence as it was played when I was on Clapham – with “peppermill” cutting patterns. They were attentive and picked up the ideas pretty well despite the fast-moving nature of the session, and when it came to implementing the ideas in the game they did well but were usually let down by simple catching or throwing errors.
For the next session, I spent the first hour focusing on catching and throwing fundamentals, and moved on to Hex offence. Ho-stack can be very effective for developed teams against person-to-person defence as it simplifies cutting and throwing options, however from a development point of view it can be counter-productive to impose rigid structures on a team who are just enjoying exploring their options on the field whilst developing their catching and throwing skills – allowing them freedom to choose from a variety of fluid options provides a more sound foundation for the learning process. The game at the end felt different when applying the Hex principles – still fairly stop-start due to turnovers, but the turns seemed to be happening in the middle of good sequences of play, rather than being like punctuation marks at the end. With some practice dedicated to catching/throwing fundamentals, and training with the freedom Hex allows, Wits have a good vibe and strong characters to hold them together whilst they go from strength to strength.
Pretoria / Tuks / Zone Rangers:
The session in Pretoria, a city just north of Johannesburg, brought together players from Tuks Uni and the Zone Rangers / Ranger Danger players. Whilst in Pretoria I stayed with Justus and Arno, who have a couple of amazing German Shepherd dogs, and five puppies! I’m a total sucker for cuteness and spent most of the evening sitting on the kitchen floor playing with them – though they do hurt when they decide to bite your socks – and they don’t give up! Justus took me on a trip to the Voortrekker Monument during the day where I learnt about the history of Afrikaners – a Southern African ethnic group descended from predominantly Dutch settlers who first arrived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who make up the majority of the Pretoria population. The players even joked about whether I could repeat what I was saying in Afrikaans, a daughter language of Dutch. Photos and videos from the Voortrekker Monument are in the full album.
The Pretoria bunch were really good fun – the session had a really great vibe and a wide spread of experience, they don’t take themselves too seriously but they are more than capable of pulling out some great plays when they want to, and really put their heads into learning and applying the things I had to teach. By the end of the game they were absolutely shredding zones, using the Hex structure to move the disc around in a flurry of short passes to get around and through the cup. I can’t quite get over how they differentiated between the two teams just with very thin orange or green sashes (you can see an orange one in the photo) – shirt colour was completely irrelevant! That said, I didn’t notice any of them getting confused on the field, so I guess they have adapted. Consensus seemed to be that Hex suited their approach to the game, so I look forward to hearing how they’re getting along with it all in the future!
A few miles south of Johannesburg lies the township of Orange Farm. The Orange Farm Ultimates were started 8 years ago, and have competed in tournaments in the past but are geographically isolated. The captain, Bongani, is a sports teacher at a local school, which has allowed him to add Ultimate to the curriculum and ensure a flow of new players. Their objective is to become competitive enough to compete on an international level, while providing an alternative to the youth of Orange Farm to get them off the streets and live an active and positive lifestyle through sport.
The journey to Orange Farm started by leaving a street with large houses surrounded by 10ft high walls with electric fences, driving to the southern outskirts of Johannesburg, into the township, alongside homes made from corrugated iron sheets, through the dirt-track bustling town centre, and onto a large field with long grass. During the session we worked on throwing techniques, forcing & breaking the force, and then Hex principles in the game. As the game went on, everyone got into it more and more, and by the end I was finding it very difficult to contain U24 squad member Sizwe as he passed and moved all around the field – getting the disc back at will like a Hex pro. Towards the end of the game Lindelani, also on the U24 squad, caught an incredible backwards layout which got everyone cheering. It was great fun playing with them and seeing how much they improved during the time I was with them!
They went on to beat Wits in the league a few days later, 15-8. Congrats Orange Farm! Big things to come in the future.
As we arrived in the western outskirts of Johannesburg at the Soweto fields, we saw 20 players wearing yellow shirts with frisbees flying between them. It was immediately apparent that these players train a lot. Throws were coming out smooth and flying great distances. They apparently meet up 3+ times a week, but have had little contact with the outside frisbee community. I had been told they have a fast-paced style and would run for days – however upon talking to them, they seemed to think fitness was one of their biggest weaknesses! Certainly nobody can say they don’t have a fast-paced style – they took to Hex like ducks to water, and seemed to really appreciate the throwing/catching tips and strategy chat that I had with them at lunchtime.
Playing in the game with them at the end, at times on defence I honestly felt out of my depth. They were able to move the disc around without hesitation, tossing backhands over defenders with ease, rarely allowing the defence time to figure out what was going on.
The enthusiasm of this team, combined with the amount of training time they’ve had and the lack of influence from the external frisbee community, mean they have evolved a natural organic style which I think any player can learn a lot from. Toss passes were particularly common – a natural counter when tight person-to-person marking stops short flat passes, and very hard to defend against if thrown accurately. They were all on the same page regarding their style; when James stepped onto the field – a Skyveld player with very solid but ‘traditional’ style/technique – the rhythm/tempo was occasionally disrupted and flow halted, showing that this team had truly developed their own way of playing which didn’t line up with the traditional approach – and I preferred it!
Hex works fantastically with this style, providing a guideline for creating and using space effectively which supports quick movement, without restricting the freedom of the players to run where they want at any given time. I ran a load of Hex drills with them, and if they dedicate training time to perfecting those drills then I wouldn’t be surprised if they were competing for the National title in a couple of years.
My final weekend in South Africa was the big one – players travelled from afar (some flying 2 hours from Durban – the same distance as London->Paris) for a coaching clinic on Saturday and a players clinic on Sunday. It was great having representatives from so many different teams – we took the opportunity to share our thoughts about Spirit of the Game at the start of the coaches session, and progressed onto coaching theory, methods for teaching sound techniques, designing and running drills and set plays, planning sessions, coaching advice for match/tournament situations, and guidelines for adapting your team strategy in response to what your opponent is playing in real-time. We had practical sections where the participants would role-play as coaches welcoming beginners to practice – throwing around with them and then offering technique advice in a way that encouraged the pupil to buy-in to the idea of being coached. Participants also paired up to design a drill and run it with the (incredibly attentive) group we had, before receiving feedback from the whole group on how they thought it went – hopefully everyone went away with the knowledge and confidence to improve their teams training sessions!
At the player clinic I introduced myself by talking about having played Ultimate non-stop for 17 years, and coached non-stop for 15 years, before talking about how we were going to look at sound catching & throwing fundamentals today, followed by some Hex offence drills and play. Fergus prompted me by asking what my relation to Hex was, and when I said I had invented it, there was a noticeable sound of surprise from those gathered – most if not all had heard of or even played it before, but hadn’t known where it had originated! Hex is quite big already in South Africa as it’s played by Chilli (club team from Cape Town), University of Cape Town, SA Masters at WUGC, and was taught at the SA U24 training which took place just before I arrived (unrelated to my visit).
Teaching the fundamental catching and throwing techniques I’ve come to trust really surprised a lot of the experienced players – some commented that they would have to completely re-work their techniques. We went through a variety of different throwing skills, such as how to put touch on passes and key elements to efficiently transferring power from the core to the throw when hucking, and I believe everyone got something useful from the technique section of the day, with some people almost being overwhelmed with the amount of stuff to learn!
In the afternoon we went through a number of Hex drills quite quickly – the Give-Go-Swill Drill, Hex Puzzle Drill, Hex Huck Drills, Keepdisc, and the all-new Red Zone Drill to practice scoring without breaking away from the Hex principles. The game at the end was high quality and I was really happy with how everyone was adopting the principles. I stopped the game a few times to highlight points at which we were surrounding the disc, not rotating the shape or crowding the narrow channel, and these elements got better and better as the game progressed. When the defence put on a zone, we experimented with surrounding the disc and it felt awesome – so I ended up learning quite a lot from the session too!
Ellie arranged for me to go on a ‘Disc Run’ a couple of days into my stay. All I knew is that a guy called Lionel would be picking me up on his motorbike in the morning, and I had to be ready at 5am outside the house with a disc in hand. Sure enough Lionel turned up before sunrise, so I hopped on as he told me to relax (it was my first time) and we rode to to a nearby (huge) park. Whilst we warmed up other disc runners arrived – Brett, Jon, and Angus, and they explained the basic rules; basically a cross between throwing around, speed disc golf, and hill running – you go round the course in pairs completing long passes to each other between tees and trees or disc golf baskets. An incomplete pass counts as a dropped shot, and you aim to complete the course in as few shots as possible, as quickly as possible. This effectively means you throw long to a partner, then hill run past them, read & catch a long throw from them, and repeat the process until you’ve putted out (all holes are par 4). We completed 36 holes – a front 18 and back 18 – and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, combining loads of things I love together!
To top it all off, the sunrise scenery was absolutely awe inspiring, and I captured it in one of the best photos I think I have ever taken. #nofilter
Johannesburg is not a safe place if you don’t keep your eyes open and your wits about you. The streets in the area I was staying were lined with 10ft high walls with 10,000 volt electric fences on top. When approaching your house, you press your key to activate the rolling gate, but you must not approach the gate before it fully opens, as this gives hijackers a chance to drive up behind you and block you in. Keep your car windows closed and your doors locked. This is all taken for granted by those who live in Johannesburg – do not allow yourself to be in situations where you may be a victim of crime. Those situations are far more common than one might imagine – essentially, there must be security in order for you to be secure. When I arrived it all seemed a bit over the top, and perhaps fear is one of the most damaging elements here – first comes the fear, then comes the walls, then comes the crime… underlying it all is a huge economic disparity and a conflict between people who want to keep things pretty much as they are for as long as they can, and those who are keen for real change to happen but often powerless to do much about it.
Apartheid ended in 1994 – really not very long ago – and the years since then have been troubled, under the ANC party who were originally Mandela’s party. Now the general feeling is that the ANC remain in power as the masses are kept in the dark, believing they are still voting for the party that will bring the change and equality Mandela championed. In reality, president Zuma has gone mad with power, has lost touch with reality, and does scant to improve the situation. Recently the 3rd most popular political party, the EFF, got evicted from the houses of parliament because they were asking Zuma when he was going to pay back the money he spent on his sprawling mansion for himself & his multiple wives. The 2nd most powerful party, the DA, staged a walk-out protest immediately after, when the speaker could not confirm nor deny that those who evicted the EFF were police officers – which would be a gross violation of the constitution. The political situation however is far from hopeless – democracy does seem to be alive, and the main enemies of change in this situation appear to be mass ignorance and a desire to hold on to privileged comfort. Who knows how Zuma will react when he loses grip though…
The economic disparity on the ground is like nothing I could have ever imagined. Generally speaking, white South Africans live in secure residences with high walls, electric fences, maids, gardeners, and security guards at the complexes, whilst black South Africans reside in townships constructed on the outskirts – small bricked bungalow houses, some with corrugated iron roofs, signs on planks, with a supply of electricity and water if they aren’t the unlucky ones. These two extremes exist just a couple of kilometres away from each other (or less) and there are no middle-ground houses – no semi-detached or terraced houses which are so common in England. You can’t just hit the middle ground and build a ton of terraced houses for everyone to live in though – this divide runs deep.
At every road junction, modern first world cars (mostly populated by one white driver) pull up at the red lights whilst black street entertainers, beggars, window cleaners, rubbish collectors, street vendors, and so on come to their windows and ask for money one way or another. Every single junction. Practically all outward-facing jobs are populated by black South Africans – road workers, waiters/waitresses, security guards, parking attendants, shop assistants, maids, gardeners… whilst this other class of white folk somehow exist between the cracks, safe in their cars and fortified residences, writing the paychecks and keeping the financial and business worlds spinning throughout it all. This division of labour leads one to think that whilst these two worlds are existing within one country, it naturally follows that those who have it want to keep it, and those who don’t have it want to take it.
In the end it comes down to the government, and so long as internet data is kept expensive in South Africa, knowledge is controlled, ignorance is king, and the ANC with Zuma will continue to rake in the votes from the townships who are in the most need of change.
The political situation is very complicated and I have a limited understanding of it from my two weeks in the country – I simply tried to soak it up from the experiences and conversations I was able to have in that time, which means my opinions are pretty biased and I have generalised in order to save space – so I’m not claiming to do the situation justice at all. I’m sure there are many elements I am missing and you should by all means form your own opinions from your own information sources. Guard dogs, which are an essential security measure for residences, are all massive racists though – that’s for sure.
The South African landscape is awesome. Huge hills everywhere, vast expanses in valleys. In the typical garden you’ll find birds with extravagant colours, lizards, and apparently the occasional snake or scorpion – though I didn’t encounter any. On the roads there are zebras and other large mammals just hanging out. Whilst visiting the Cradle of Humankind (where there were signs warning of deadly snakes as soon as you strayed from the paths) with Andy, we went on a walk through the Sterkfontein Caves, where there was an underground lake which went on for miles and miles – nobody knows how deep it is, and one person died trying to find out!
I visited the Lion and Rhino park with Paul from Wits – not a very big place, containing plenty of big cats and other animals. There was a resident cheetah that I heard purring loudly as some guests stroked it. I got to feed a giraffe and play with some lion cubs using a frisbee… it was a fun and interesting experience, but ultimately a bit saddening that they were being kept in fairly small areas, and even more so when I later found out some of the cubs will almost certainly be used for caged hunting later in their lives.
Fergus took me and his brother Lewis to Pilansburg Nature Reserve & Wildlife Park – a massive expanse of land where animals roam free, and humans are strictly forbidden from interfering in any way. The main tracks through the park were tarmac, but the others were dirt tracks which were often incredibly difficult to navigate a regular car through without getting stuck – thankfully Ferg has hundreds of hours of experience as a qualified field guide so we didn’t get stuck once, and he was able to identify all the animals we saw, and bird calls we heard! Whilst going along the tracks you have to keep a keen eye out to spot any animals in the vicinity, as you never know where they will be. Sometimes we’d just catch a brief glimpse of something flat and grey between the bush, reverse the car, and suddenly a full grown elephant would come into view… or the top of a tree would look funny, and it’d turn out to be a giraffe. Sometimes the animals would appear on the road in front of us, or pop out of the bush right next to us!
Seeing wild white rhinos and elephants on the track about 15m in front of us felt so unreal. I was acutely aware of how the animals regarded us – did they have a concept of humans as an animal?
Likely they just saw cars as an uninteresting animal – they don’t smell nice, they keep to the tracks, they keep their distance, and they don’t bother us. This meant they seemed to be totally relaxed in our presence – we even saw the rhinos playfully tussling a little – though when they started coming down the road towards us we made sure to back off and keep our distance.
Also seen were; hippos – minding their own business in a swampy lake; kudu – nice looking large stripe game-type animals; and plenty of wildebeest, impala, birchel zebra, and more. It felt fantastic to be surrounded by nature, and encouraged thoughts of “could I survive in this environment?”, but there was a lingering awareness I had that the whole area was ultimately surrounded by a fence, leading me to realise we were having to fence the most dangerous animals out – humans – and in places where nature exists without any fences, poaching is very rapidly reducing the large animal population to nil. Nature reserves are becoming like a window into the past, where we can witness how beautiful, balanced and diverse the earth had become before human evolution spiked.
All the photos and videos I took on my trip are available in this Google Photos album – some of my remaining favourites are below. Lastly I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who made my stay in South Africa possible, and so hugely enjoyable – Ellie, Fergus, Justus, Arno, Paul, Andy, Charlotte – everyone who let me crash at their place and drove me around to show me the wonders your country has to offer, and all those who donated to the fundraiser! I hope my work has long lasting impact in the region and I aim to return in the future (to talk about defence!).
v 2.2 – 15th March 2016
Concept first published 1st Jan 2013
Also available in French / en Français (v2.1)
Hex Offence combines Total Football’s freedom of movement with Spain’s tiki-taka quick passing style of play, and applies it to the Ultimate field.
Hex can be explained through four simple principles:
1. Always take the open pass
2. Fake to any option you cannot throw to
3. Use space as you see it developing
4. Maintain the shape
Abiding by these principles creates a fast-moving, flow-based offence which doesn’t give the defence a chance to set, maximises the offensive options available, and constantly changes the angles of attack.
1. Always take the open pass
- Regardless of field position or yardage – if the open pass is behind you, take it. Don’t wait to see if there’s another open pass which can gain you yards, simply take the open pass you are aware of at that point in time.
- Regardless of stall count – if you have an open pass on stall 1, don’t hold onto the disc to see if anything else will present itself later in the stall, simply take the open pass as soon as you see it.
- Face infield – by facing towards the centre of the shape, you are able to see open passes develop anywhere on the field at any time.
- Initiate & maintain flow – two quick passes can be enough to initiate flow, and once flowing, sustain it for as long as possible by continuing to take the open passes.
2. Fake to any option you cannot throw to
Faking should always be realistic and purposeful. There are three main purposes for faking, in order of importance:
a) To move downfield defenders around – if you have seen a potential option, then the good defenders on the field will also have seen it, so a realistic fake will get them committing to cover this option, and open up other options for the offence elsewhere on the field.
b) To communicate with your team – when you fake to a potential throwing option, you communicate to that player that you have recognised the option they are providing, but that you are not going to throw it for whatever reason. This serves as a prompt for them to provide an option elsewhere on the field. The rest of your team are also party to this communication, and should respond appropriately. An effect of a good purposeful fake is that the team are brought onto the same page, into sync, and are then able to establish a rhythm to their offence and control the tempo.
c) To move your mark – useful to make a particular throw easier, and often considered the primary reason for faking, sometimes fakes for this purpose are not aimed at viable options and thus can cause miscommunication and disconnection between the thrower and their team mates. When there are enough offensive options available, faking solely for this purpose is no longer productive.
3. Use space as you see it developing
As space opens on the field, make use of it by moving into it. The shape (below) acts as a map of the potential space on the field relative to where the disc is at any point.
See space developing early by having your head up and being aware of the positioning of your team mates and the defenders whenever possible.
Create space for each other by making movements, even when closely covered.
Take what your defender gives you, or make them give you something you want.
4. Maintain the shape
The shape (a hexagon) stays the same regardless of the location of the disc – rotating as it nears the sideline in order to keep all players inside the playing field & away from the sideline, as illustrated here. The shape cannot and need not always be perfect during a point, but all players should make efforts and work as a team to maintain the shape when they can, especially if they are not involved in the immediate play.
- Stay connected – when in good shape, each player is connected to (within 8-12 yards of) three team mates. The distance between any two players in the shape is guided by the team’s average throwing ability, or wind conditions – it should be a comfortable pass if the player moves towards the thrower as quickly as possible, or if they move away from the thrower as quickly as possible (a long pass). The three players connected to the thrower occupy the centre of the comfortable distances the thrower can pass, and keep the same distance away from each other.
- Make triangles – the shape consists of six equilateral triangles, so if players focus locally on maintaining these triangles, the hexagon shape forms naturally.
- Keep equidistant – locally, ensure the triangles are equilateral. These equal distances make it much easier to ensure everyone is connected, and to establish rhythm and tempo control as an offence, as well as setting a standard for pass-length that players can become familiar and comfortable with.
- Avoid the narrow channel – when moving up past a player with the disc, take the path on the wider side of the field – avoid the space between the thrower and the sideline.
- Don’t surround the disc – against person-to-person marking, surrounding the disc (i.e. having the thrower in the centre of the shape, or having a ‘reset’ on the opposite side of the disc to ‘cutters’) will often lead to turnovers and should be avoided. Against zonal defence, surrounding the disc can be beneficial.
Theoretical movement – without defenders, the most efficient way to advance the disc down the field whilst maintaining shape would be to pass the disc down the sideline whilst the hex rotates like a wheel rolling down the line – as illustrated in this animation.
In practice, defenders prevent the most efficient offensive movement, and so although globally the structure effectively rotates as it moves down the sideline, not all local situations will reflect this rotation directly.
When the disc is passed forwards through the middle, players behind and lateral with the disc must push up to avoid surrounding the disc (whilst avoiding the narrow channel), as illustrated in this animation and this animation.
“Hexagon” technically refers to the shape used in this offence, which can be considered as separate to the principles and style of play this article lays out. For simplicity, I am combining both the shape and the style in this article and under the name Hexagon Offence, as no other offences currently exist which use the Hex shape (though the positions in Frank Huguenard’s Motion Offence result in a similar shape). If plenty more Hex-based offences spring up over time then this combined shape & style may be renamed to something containing my name, such as Shardlow Offence, Felix O, etc.
Scoring in all Ultimate usually happens in one of two ways: (1) from a deep throw, or (2) from flow towards the end zone. When the disc is around the area of the brick mark, the deep throw is a significant threat, so defenders must not allow the offence players to streak free towards the zone. This allows the offence more chances to be free coming back towards the disc, for shorter passes which can be used to initiate flow. Hardly any turnovers happen when the disc is thrown from near the brick mark.
As the disc gets closer to the end zone, the deep throw is no longer a threat, so the defence can apply more pressure to shorter passes. When flow stops outside the end zone, the odds of the offence scoring decreases significantly.
When in this situation, it is still relatively easy for the offence to initiate flow – if they are moving away from the end zone. The offence should coordinate flowing away from the zone – towards the brick mark – whilst vacating all players from the end zone (staying connected), as this will quickly open up the deep throw again as an immediate scoring option, and put them in a good position to direct their flow back towards the end zone.
The ideal distance to which you should flow away from the end zone depends on the players on your team – far enough so that all defenders are out of the end zone, but not so far that your players cannot reach the end zone with a long throw.
Training Hex Offence with your team – contains some diagrams & descriptions of drills, and tips on how to introduce the offence to your team.
Mex Offence v2.1 – an older version of this doc – more verbose.
Full game footage of Hexagon Offence being played is available at pushpass.co.uk – see any of Brighton City’s games from UKU Nationals 2012/13/14, XEUCF 2013, EUCF 2014, or any Sussex Mohawks 1 or Brighton Panthers games from Uni Regionals 2014. For clips of Hexagon Offence see the Hexagon Ultimate YouTube channel – here are some samples from the channel of Hex in action, taken in 2013.
NB: The play in these videos is by no means a perfect display of Hex, and in the football ones I did get a bit overzealous on drawing triangles over the pitch…
Full drone cam footage of GB U23X v GB Mixed 2015
I’m currently in the Gauteng region of South Africa (around Johannesburg), coaching outreach teams, universities, club teams, and running clinics for leaders, coaches and players! You can follow my progress for now through these Facebook photos, and I’ll be putting up a full report afterwards.
Check out this video, created collaboratively between myself and Gauteng Ultimate, which explains more about South Africa’s history, what’s going on with Ultimate in the Gauteng region, and what I’m doing whilst out here:
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I’ve been taking some time recently to analyse Japan’s defence against USA in the WUGC 2016 Final, and posting a series of mini analysis pieces on reddit. Ever since I saw Buzz Bullets in Australia winning WUCC 2006, I’ve been inspired by their alternate approach to defense. Here is a team that play defence like a team. Defensive teamwork has been largely overlooked in the development of Ultimate strategy, with focus being on how to beat your one-on-one matchup, or different zonal approaches looking to generate turns through specific scenarios. Buzz worked together and it was difficult to see what their aim was, or where they were coming from. However, it was incredibly effective, mind opening, and intriguing.
Below are a number of breakdowns which I originally posted to reddit /r/ultimate – I was waiting to compile my conclusions into a neat article for felixultimate.com, but now I figure content content content – if I’m writing it then I should be publishing it. By the end I will have improved my knowledge of Japan’s defence, so will be in a good position to write a summary piece. For now it’s more of a train-of-thought style approach.
Below are the analysis pieces, in chronological order from top to bottom (scroll down to the bottom to find the new content as & when it gets added!)
13:30 – Japan’s efficient D – helping & then rapidly tightening up on USA
Originally I thought this was a smooth switch on Beau, but after a few views it becomes clear it’s a couple of moves by individuals rather than coordination between them. The Japanese defenders sprint downfield after their mark releases a throw down the line, meaning their defensive efforts are weighted towards disrupting immediate throws down the line & short passes off the line, at the expense of allowing an offensive player to be immediately free in the backfield. USA’s style means they are unlikely to look infield or towards the backfield until around stall 3, at which time the Japanese defenders tighten up to their original marks to prevent continuations.
The defensive movement is efficient – the first clogging defender moves a shorter distance than their mark over the course of the clip, is next to their mark at the start and the end, and manages to cover a second offensive player in the middle. The second clogging defender moves the same distance as Beau, but by pre-empting his movement he’s also able to pressurise another offensive player cutting up the line during the first three seconds of the next stall, and still be covering Beau when he next looks to make a move.
If the USA cutters turned infield (to their right) after catching, and looked to utilize the free player in the backfield, they would sacrifice yards in exchange for moving the disc off the line with fluid motion, countering Japan’s immediate clogging tactics by making their defenders movements inefficient. Such an early backwards pass would be a stark contrast to the traditional style of Ultimate which USA champions, and using this style the USA retained possession here and won this game.
17:00 – Japan using communication by gesticulation to cover USA’s initial options
First thing that catches the eye here is Japan’s #5 not following the early deep cut, but switching onto Beau instead – he’s likely been given the task of stopping the first under threat whilst a teammate picks up the deep threat (a fairly common tactic to stop set plays).
More interestingly, the two Japanese defenders towards the top of the screen position themselves so they are able to see each other, and then communicate via gesticulation – pointing out the threat they want the other player to cover. They haven’t decided exactly who they will be marking until they arrive and analyse the situation. If Mickle (cutting under on the far sideline) had arrived earlier, it’s quite possible the Japanese defenders would’ve chosen to mark different players. Both defenders react immediately to the shared communication, and take their marks. This one-second of communication & teamwork puts USA on the back foot and results in a stall-6 layout save.
USA may be applying the old adage “run through the poaches” here, however the Japanese players are not really poaching – after the first couple of seconds they are each covering a specific mark. Note how every defender glances frequently between their mark, the disc, and the space – dynamically reacting to the positioning/space and where the thrower is focusing, so they are able to save their energy by only committing to cover realistic & time-critical threats. This gives the impression of poaching, improves the efficiency of their movement, and helps facilitate dynamic switching of marks.
Ben Wiggins (/u/blwiggins) realised that Buzz defenders pay a lot of attention to where the thrower is looking when trying to figure out their D in 2007 – this clip of him throwing a no-look score and then giving a knowing nod has stuck in my mind ever since! (excuse the quality – it’s more obviously no-look on the DVD)
It’s apparent that Japan run down the pull matching person-for-person, and when they arrive they re-analyse, focusing on communicating and switching where possible. This maximises their effectiveness and adds an unpredictable element which often negates any set play the opposition has planned.
17:17 – Japan defence regain control
As the disc is in the air moving downfield, the Japanese defenders behind the disc all bust a gut to get in front of it again. There are a couple of slight errors as Japanese defender #16 is trapped between two defenders and without a mark. He tries to communicate initially to get the player on the far sideline marked, and then to push white hat #97 onto marking the near-side handler. At the very end of the clip he switches again to make his teammate on the far sideline’s job easier.
Whilst all this defensive switching & re-marking is going on, USA #4 Schlacket has slipped through the net and is temporarily unmarked. #10 Matsuno, who may have poached to stop Beau’s deep cut, recognises this and has begun to close him down at speed before the disc is thrown, but is narrowly unable to get there in time to stop the pass.
18:05 – Japan’s Blown Sandwich
This is a mistake from Japan, caused by a misunderstanding and/or a lack of communication. As the two USA offensive players meet, the deeper Japanese defender (#16 Jun Kusano) seems to expect he and his nearby teammate will form a sandwich around the two cutters, and positions himself accordingly – covering any deep moves and expecting his teammate to cover either cutter going under. At the moment just before the USA player moves, the positioning looks all good for a sandwich (they could even work together with the other nearby defenders to make it 3v3 or 4v4), however when the under cut happens it becomes clear that yellow-boots is not aware of the plan, and the opportunity has been missed.
What’s interesting is that Kusano was expecting the sandwich to happen, suggesting it is an element of the defence which Japan have agreed upon / practiced. If the USA players moving towards each other had triggered all the nearby Japanese defenders to look to set up a sandwich, it could have presented the USA with an unfamiliar situation from which they would need to work to get free, and upped the defensive efficiency by requiring less movement. This would have looked like classic confusing Japanese not-quite-man, not-quite-zone defence.
Kusano was on the Buzz Bullets’ universe point D line against Ironside at WUCC 2014, and scored the winning point. Yohei Kichikawa – who blows the sandwich here – is also a veteran Buzz player and the top assister for Japan in 2016. It’s possible Kichikawa was given the strict matchup of Mickle for this point, making him exempt from what are revealed to be standard switching/sandwiching defensive moves by Japan.
26:04 – Classic ‘Dump-Give-Go Switch’ vs Kolick
Japan have a tendency to not mark anyone behind the disc until after stall 3, meaning they’re in a good position to counter this classic ‘dump and give-go’ move (often seen run by Freechild) with a switch. Mizuho Tanaka (red headband) shouts and points as soon as Kolick releases the disc, but Kichikawa is already aware & moving to switch – meaning both players are familiar with and practiced at switching in this situation.
This is an often-seen switch made by Japan & Buzz Bullets – in GB in 2011 we practiced emulating it and called it the ‘Buzz switch’, although with so much to learn about switching this name now seems too generalised; something like the Dump-Give-Go Switch could suit it, as the dump pass & sagging off the 2nd dump for the first 3 seconds of the stall is an important element.
A switching principle that could be applied is “*if a teammate is in a better position to cover your mark, and you are in a better position to cover theirs, switch*”. This sounds obvious, and if you check the defenders positioning as Kolick releases the disc you might agree that not switching in this situation would be a big mistake.
22:14 – Japan with a switch, then poaching with missed switch opportunities vs USA
#2 Tanaka passes his deep-cutting mark off to #10 Matsuno who has allowed his player to get the disc under – Tanaka gesticulates for clarity as this happens. Matsuno is clearly prioritising covering the deeps for this point, as his mark is completely free under a second time, however this time no switch occurs and he is seen at the end of the clip arriving late to close down the thrower.
Matsuno crossing paths with #80 Kichikawa at the end of this clip is an indication that an opportunity for a switch has been missed, and there has been an inefficiency in the defense. Kichikawa can be seen considering the switch when he’s running past Matsuno’s mark (Gibson) earlier – he was likely reluctant to take it as he was unsure whether the mark he was leaving would be picked up by a teammate (unlike Tanaka’s switch earlier, where he visually connects with Matsuno first).
Ideally Tanaka, Kichikawa and Matsuno are all fully aware of where each other and and where each other’s marks are, so can make split second decisions to switch when the opportunity arises. Tanaka has been beaten deep – he should be immediately passing his mark to Matsuno and looking to pick up Matsuno’s previous mark, or at least see where he can help under. Kichikawa is in a great position to switch onto Gibson – if he did this whilst Tanaka was heads-up analysing the situation, then Tanaka could take Kichikawa’s previous mark, and Matsuno would be marking the off-screen player in the end zone. This is a triple-switch, which can be difficult to perform in such a fast-moving, rapidly changing situation, but is possible if all defenders have their heads up to the situation, have a constant communication channel open, and know they are looking to switch whenever it can benefit them.
The cause of the breakdown of the defence in this clip is off-screen poaching from Matsuno, without a switch being initiated by him, Tanaka, or Kichikawa. The deep poach from Matsuno gives false security to Tanaka, who does not fully commit to following his mark’s deep cut, but does not commit to taking Matsuno’s mark either. This has the knock-on effect of putting more reliance on Matsuno’s poach, meaning he has to stay in the deep space for longer, and his mark is able to both get the disc and throw a flat cross-field break. This is the fundamental problem with poaching without switching – it encourages the other defenders to play to your poach, meaning you become trapped whilst there is a completely free offensive player elsewhere on the field who will get the disc, and will break your defence down. If Matsuno, Tanaka or Kichikawa had tried to switch, then the deep space would have remain covered by Matsuno, and Tanaka & Kichikawa would have had to only make small movements to make sure all remaining offensive players were relatively covered. Very difficult, but possible if all defenders are heads-up and on the same page.
31:00 – Japan point and shout but leave Schlacket unmarked
Japan don’t care about marking players who are behind the disc – you can see #17 look around to find alternate marking options when his player occupies the backfield. He does however make a mistake at the end of the clip by paying too much attention to the thrower and biting on a backfield threat.
#3 Yasuo Takahashi, top left, bumps into Beau early on in the clip, then points and shouts in order to pass him off to a deeper defender. When #19 Mickle comes near to him, he takes him as a mark, but doesn’t follow him into the backfield – instead takes the force.
#19 Masashi Koike as the central defender is the first to point and shout to pass off an offence player who is jogging deep. Note how often he looks at the disc, checks the space around him, points to any nearby offensive options, and closes down offensive players when they are potential threats (depending on the status of the disc).
#7 Yuta Inomata enters screen left after a few seconds, and is also clearly conditioned to point and shout at any nearby offensive players, as he does three times in these first few seconds of defense. He makes a mistake however – not marking #4 Schlacket, who receives the “zone-busting” pass at the end of the clip (though I would not call this defence a ‘zone’).
The reason Inomata did not mark Schlacket was two-fold – firstly, he was in a zonal mindset, (falsely) trusting that #19 Koike would pick up any player in the middle of the field. Secondly, he was drawn towards drawn towards a deeper offensive player who must have posed a threat (we can’t say for certain as we can’t see the deep marking). #19 Koike, who starts as a central defender, was occupied with a live offensive threat on the sideline, however by slightly poaching he sent a false-positive signal to #7 Inomata that he could cover a central offensive threat, hence why this player was left unmarked.
If the deep marking was tighter then this would have sent Koike a positive signal that he could commit to marking Schlacket and not worry about the deeper threat. Of course the tighter deep marking would have increased the risk of a USA huck – which was likely against the general Japanese team-strategy for this game.
The interesting positive theme of this clip is the repeated pointing and shouting whenever a Japanese defender identifies a potential offensive threat – even if it isn’t always directed towards a specific teammate. This is clearly a cornerstone of the defence – communicate the location of offensive players through gesticulation and vocalisation.
What could be improved, is making sure every offensive player is covered, as this would help prevent the “zone-buster” to Schlacket. It’s worth noting the root cause of the offensive player being unmarked was a knock-on effect of poaching (by #19 and the deep defenders), meaning #7 Inomata felt he could pass off Schlacket rather than mark him.
30:56 – Japan with lots more pointing & keeping the field evenly balanced
The first thing I notice is the Japenese defender #3 Yasuo Takahashi at the top of the screen, passing off an offensive player (Schlacket) as they run down the wing – pointing in their direction as #81 Masatsune Miyazaki picks them up.
Watching #81 Miyazaki from the start (on the very left of the screen), you notice he allows an offensive player to move away from him across the width of the field, but he points in the general direction they went, which alerts #19 (Koike) to the potentially unmarked player. Miyazaki tracks Schlacket for the remainder of the clip, continually checking in with the disc and the other defenders around him.
#19 Koike in the centre also points towards Schlacket as he moves down the line, and later gesticulates towards the deep space as he moves towards it. Why does he prioritise the deep space? In the backfield at that moment there are three defensive and three offensive players, meaning the situation is balanced. In the deep space however there are 4 offensive players and 3 defenders – until he arrives to help. I believe Koike is player-counting, and that this is an important job for whoever finds themselves in the central defender position. By keeping track of the ratio of downfield vs backfield players, the central defender is able to position themselves to keep the field balanced, and prevent a heavy concentration in any particular area – which often leads to a defensive breakdown. It is of course critical for them to stay in constant communication with the rest of the team whilst doing this, as they act like the central node in a network.
A fairly clear ‘rule of thumb’ for the Japanese defence which we can extrapolate from this clip is one which we also identified in a previous clip: communicate the location of offensive players through gesticulation and vocalisation – especially important if those players are potentially unmarked (i.e. when you let your mark leave you). This would fall under the general defensive principle of communicate. Less clearly, it appears the central defender is trying to maintain the balance of players on the field by player-counting and adjusting his positioning accordingly, which essentially leads to every defender having a mark / every offensive player being covered / no area being overloaded. Whether this is a rule of thumb, a principle, or part of a more general principle being adhered to is currently unclear, although the next clip I will analyse shows it is definitely an area of focus for Japan.
These two elements of the Japanese defence work very well together – through each defender communicating where the potentially free offensive players are moving around the field, and trying to maintain field balance, the team can work together like a network, and is able to flex in order to cover the offensive team’s movement & positioning, as commentator Bryan Jones makes note of during this point. This level of teamwork lifts the ceiling off what is usually expected from traditional approaches to defence.
31:20 – Central Japan defender acknowledges an error after two USA players crash into the backfield space
#19 Koike, in the centre of the field, crashes towards the disc / backfield space at the start of this clip, at the same time as two USA players move into the backfield space. For a moment, it’s 4v4 in the backfield, but then Koike moves away. This leaves the backfield defenders overloaded, and #17 Furikado is torn at the end between following his mark down the line, or taking Mickle in the backfield. Koike’s slight lapse in concentration is addressed as Furikado shouts and points to the free player – Koike acknowledges and marks up. He’s acknowledging with both hands, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a deeper defender was also communicating with him – they could be saying they’re already marked up 3v3 in the deep space so Koike should be picking up his mark from the backfield.
The root of this slight error started when the Japanese defender at the top of the screen (#3 Takahashi, although we don’t see his number as he’s facing infield the entire clip) poached off a player in the backfield and gesticulated to Koike to move deeper – pointing to a player that was already covered by #81. This left Koike without a mark, meaning the defence was being overloaded in the backfield. Although Japan are not concerned with marking players tightly in the backfield, if they keep track of the number of players behind the disc and match them with players just in front of the disc, then they won’t be overloaded when the offence start to advance forward. Koike’s attention should have been focused on the players behind the disc, and this was where the next potential unmarked threat would be coming from – if the downfield defenders are doing a good job then he should leave them to mark 3v3. I believe this is the lapse he acknowledges.
An element that added to the confusion was that two USA players simultaneously moved into the backfield. Combined with the misleading communication from Takahashi, this is what caused Koike to momentarily lose track of the spread of offensive players (to miscount).
Japan are not immediately punished for this slip, however at the end of the clip the knock-on effect is that #17 Furikado doesn’t have a mark, and there’s a free player towards the top of the screen – which is where the next USA pass goes.
31:18 – Japan with a near-window of opportunity after a Mickle 270
There is a moment in this clip where Japan swarm towards the disc – this is when Mickle does a 270 spin, and it’s a window of opportunity for a Japan D. Each option begins to be closed down just *before* the thrower focuses on it – the relative speeds throw him off – so he ‘looks off’ two reset throws without even a fake (I think he should fake quick-but-possible throws to get the defenders to commit).
How could Japan have better used their window of opportunity? If the Japanese defender at the top of the screen had stuck to the player he quickly closed down at this moment, and prevented the dump pass, then there would likely have been a bid on the next pass, or at least very high stall.
You can see that the excellent movement to close down the option at the start of this clip started a chain reaction in the Japan defence – probably aided by on-pitch communication – which becomes apparent at the end of the clip, when the deep defender comes in to cover Beau – good timing if he were to get a bid after Mickle’s 720.
Relevant further reading: the Stall-3 game changer, and Flex principle 3: cover all offensive players as a team
The image below indicates where each pull in the WUGC Women’s Gold Medal match – USA v Colombia – was caught or landed, and the path of the disc up until the point where flow stopped or a turnover occured. For the purposes of this article, “flow” refers to the disc being released within 3 seconds of the stall, with a maximum of 1 fake. This definition is less strict than the one I used for the USA – Japan final (passes made in fluid movement within 2 seconds) – early fakes followed by a throw after 2-3 seconds seem to be far more prevalent in this game.
Points of note:
- COL pulled out 2/8 times, USA 1/14 times, and USA also had a pull that slid out the back after landing in
- USA caught 2/6 in-bounds COL pulls, COL caught 7/13 in-bounds USA pulls
- COL moved the disc to the opposite side of the field 10/12 times
- USA’s first pass moved the disc further away from the centre of the field 6/6 times, and onto the backhand side 5/6 times
- COL took more than one pass in flow 10/12 times
- USA took more than one pass in flow 4/6 times
- Both teams pulled roughly the same average distance
- COL turned over 3/12 times in flow, USA turned over 2/6 times in flow
- Neither team scored from flow off the pull, though USA passed the disc beyond the half-way point 4/6 times
- COL completed avg. 5.25 passes in flow off the pull, USA avg. 3.5
Colombia’s consistent pulls, occasional poaches, and USA’s flick-side-stack double-iso play
Most of Colombia’s pulls landed in the centre of the field, between the brick mark and the end zone. Colombian defenders generally arrived with simple person-to-person defence, however at 3-1 there’s a (possibly unintentional) poach off a handler, and at 8-4 there’s a clear poach off one of the downfield players in the side-stack – which Colombia use to clog the USA’s throwing lane. Both instances of poaching led to USA being slowed down with their advance, but not stopped.
When Colombia did not poach, USA would execute their pull play near-flawlessly – essentially setting up a side-stack on the flick side, then isolating a first and second cut on the backhand side of the field; #1 catches the pull and throws to #2 who is towards the backhand side of the field. #2 catches and looks downfield for #3 who is isolated. #3 looks to continue to #4, who is isolated deeper on the backhand side (and usually cuts deep). The other three players hang out in a side-stack near the flick-side sideline, and become activated if the play breaks down (or sprint to the end zone to score).
In the first point of the game, USA handlers pass the disc to the flick side of the field, and Colombia subsequently get an interception – I put this down to USA having not yet found their routine for the game as this is the only instance when the first pass goes to the flick side instead of the backhand side of the field, and it encounters more traffic. The lateral cut following this by #7 Kami Groom is at an awkward angle, and she does not attack the disc as aggressively as the Colombian defender, leading to the turnover.
For every other pull reception, USA follow their flick-side-stack double-iso setup as described above – being disrupted only when Colombia would put a poach in the mix.
USA’s variable pulls, containing defence, and Colombia’s 4-person crossfield swinging
USA’s pulls came down in a variety of places between the brick mark and the end zone line, and the defence would arrive with person-to-person marks (except for a zonal point at 3-0 and possibly 5-1). USA defenders marking Colombia’s handlers would ‘sag’ off slightly downfield, allowing the disc to swing to their player before closing them down and putting a flat / straight-up mark on.
Colombia kept four players back to receive the pull, spreading them laterally across the field. Without fail they would move the disc across to the opposite side of the field after catching the pull. This has the effect of dramatically changing the angle of attack, however results in the disc being nearer the sideline if flow is stopped by the USA. Downfield, Colombia’s cutters seem to be opportunistic – spreading across the field with no clear tendency to stack, the three cutters have plenty of room to work with, and cut into space as they see it developing – often after one of the four handlers pushes downfield (which they were happy to do in a very dynamic manner). The combination of increased downfield space and the disc swinging causing the angle of attack to change frequently makes the downfield defenders’ jobs hard.
USA allowed Colombia to swing the disc against their flat / straight-up handler marks. Usually swinging works as a tactic because the angles of attack change so dramatically, but USA defenders downfield were aware of which side the disc was swinging to, and their handler-marks would sag to clog the throwing lane, which stopped Colombia from gaining many yards through flow. USA also managed to get two early-point interceptions, and Colombia’s flow often stopped near the sideline, so USA’s defence can be viewed as a successful counter to Colombia’s offence.
USA’s pull fielding routine was well practiced – the disc was moved to the backhand side of the field 5/6 times, presenting the downfield players with a standard look to work from each time. Twice Colombia forced backhand, and these were the two times the USA’s plays were most successful – with two downfield passes being made to the iso players (although one of these resulted in an unforced turnover). Twice Colombia poached, and these were 2 of the 3 times the USA weren’t able to complete their first iso throw in flow – so it’s a tactic which Colombia should have explored further. Poaching off the handler encouraged USA to run handler-led flow for almost the whole length of the field, but poaching off a player in the side-stack prevented the first iso throw and stopped USA’s flow entirely. Forcing towards the side-stack and/or poaching off a side-stack player every time would have been good a tactic for Colombia to employ to try to counter USA’s well-drilled pull fielding routine.
Analysis of specifics
Colombia poaching off a handler, USA’s handler-led flow
Throughout the duration of this clip, USA have a 2v1 advantage in the backfield which they should be looking to maximise. Looking downfield and faking in this situation uses valuable time and energy, so must have a clear purpose – ideally one that ultimately plays to the 2v1 advantage. #52 Claire Chastain‘s play in this sequence is excellent – her first fake unbalances her mark, giving her an advantage which she immediately ‘cashes in’ on with a give-go move towards the near side of the field. She then tries to set up #18 Leila Tunnell to attack the far side of the field but they’re not quite on the same page. Chastain positions herself to receive the return pass – staying on her toes and moving dynamically. Note #8 Octavia “Opi” Payne on the near-side sideline, recognising the 2v1 situation and being happy not to get involved, leaving the handlers to exploit the advantage themselves. At the end of the clip, the poaching defender arrives and Chastain makes a well-timed throw & go move to counter the defenders velocity and get downfield of her – putting herself in a very powerful position. The Colombian defender’s overcommital suggests to me the poaching may have been unintentional.
Chastain pulls out of the throw & go – possibly predicting that #2 Calise Cardenas will look downfield after catching, and wouldn’t spot the give-go move early enough. Sure enough, Cardenas looks downfield and auto-fakes before hitting Opi coming under. Chastain has stayed dynamic & on her toes, always threatening and never allowing her defender to get comfortable, so is able to time her move to get the disc off Opi in perfect flow. Opi’s defender overcommits, Chastain immediately recognises and cashes in by dribbling with Opi, and then times her final fake to get her defender over-committing again. Other than Chastain continuing to initiate flow whenever she can by using her deadly dribbling skills, it’s worth noting Opi’s efficiency of movement – always aware of the positional advantage she has over her defender, never moving unnecessarily, always a threatening option – even when walking at the end she gets ready to receive a pass in the backfield as Chastain pivots infield. At the end of the clip, flow stops when Chastain doesn’t have an option to cash in on after faking her mark out – possibly another fake aimed at #2 Cardenas streaking into the end zone (or looking back to Opi) could have created an option of switching the play over to the far sideline, hard to say for certain.
Near-perfect USA pull play
USA execute their pull play nearly perfectly – #3 Lien Hoffmann gets free under as the first iso cutter, #6 Sarah Griffith gets free deep as iso #2, however she’s decided very early to cut for huge separation and reception of a flick huck over her right shoulder. She angles her cut slightly to the left corner (to create more space on the right), but gets so free with this move that Hoffmann rightly decides to throw to the left, putting up the immediate backhand huck. Griffith has taken her eye off the play and was expecting the backhand fake leading to flick huck on the right side, so looks over her right shoulder. She quickly realises she’s second-guessed Hoffmann and the throw has already been thrown to the left side – despite overcompensating with her read and putting in a good bid she’s unable to reach the disc. #51 Claire Desmond is free moving into the end zone as Colombia accidentally double-marked one of the USA cutters in the side-stack.
Textbook USA pull play
Great early read & adjustment from #51 Claire Desmond, who then slows down faster than the Colombian defender is expecting. Check out the speed from Griffith to create separation in the end zone! In 8 seconds USA have advanced the disc 60 yards, despite the pull being the best Colombia made during the game. Nightmare for defenders who chase down the pull & then must immediately turn 180 and sprint back to their end zone.
Colombia swinging the disc against USA’s containing defence
Colombia demonstrate how happy they are to move the disc quickly across the field – they are looking for ways to advance yards through disc movement opening up gaps in the defence, rather USA’s style of hitting isolated cutters from a particular disc-position on the field. You can see USA’s containing defence – each Colombian receives the disc in space, and is then closed down by their respective USA mark putting on a flat force. Note #24 Alex Snyder, after her player swings the disc she drops back slightly whilst matching the lateral movement of her mark, clogging the lane and encouraging a yard-losing pass back to her mark before closing her down again with a flat force – classic ‘sagging defence’ movement.
Interesting to note #44 Maggie Ruden on the near sideline (off the field) gesticulating to indicate the direction Colombia are swinging the disc – demonstrating without question that USA were aware of & trying to counter Colombia’s offensive movement by allowing the swings but being aware downfield of which side the disc was moving to.
In summary, it’s easy to see how Columbia’s dynamic swinging offensive style got them to the final, however USA had clearly done their homework and were prepared to counter it effectively. USA’s pull routine was very effective and was still being worked out by Colombia, who could have countered it more consistently by forcing flick & poaching off the side-stack to prevent the early iso passes.
The data below marks where each pull in the WUGC Men’s Gold Medal match – USA v Japan – was caught or landed, and the path of the disc up until the point where it stopped & the defence was set. For the purposes of this article, “flow” refers to the disc being released fluidly within 2 seconds of catching.
Points of note:
- USA pulled out twice (both out the back), Japan once (out the side)
- Japan caught every in-bounds USA pull, but were not tested with hard-to-catch pulls
- USA caught 5/5 in-bounds JPN pulls in the first half, 1/6 in the second half
- USA moved the disc towards the centre of the field 10/11 times
- Japan moved the disc towards the centre of the field 5/12 times
- Japan took more than one pass in flow 7/12 times
- USA looked for and completed exactly one pass in flow 10/11 times
- Japan one time chose not to chase down the pull, and allowed USA to work it up uncontested for 40 yards
- All of USA’s pulls went further than all-but-one Japanese pull
- Japan scored from flow off the pull twice, and gained more yards from fielding the pull – resulting in a shorter field to play with despite the deeper USA pulls
- Japan were offside once, USA called travel on Japan flow once
Japan’s blading pulls, containing defence, and USA’s clinically executed pull-fielding routine
Japan’s pulls were all outside-in, so sacrificed hang-time and distance in order to make them riskier to catch – more so in the second half. This could have been a tactic to tempt a dropped pull, sacrificing being able to pressure USA’s first pass (which they consistently used to centre the disc). USA caught the couple of more bladey pulls in the first half, but let them land 5/6 times in the second half. Japan’s defenders were reluctant to go past the disc after running down the pull – preferring to clog the USA’s immediate downfield throwing lanes.
USA have a very clear pull fielding routine in place – two players hang back, one catches/picks up and passes to the other, who has positioned themselves as central as possible – gaining yards if safe. When the pass is complete, the pull catcher becomes the reset, and the thrower’s focus is turned downfield for the cutters to make the first play. Catching the pull is not of paramount importance in this routine, as seen in the second half when they only caught 1/6 pulls but were still able to get the pass off each time – in fact their least successful centering in the second half was off the one pull they caught.
This style of pull-fielding is very suited to the USA’s style of Ultimate – their aim was to present the downfield cutters with a static centralised handler situation, and they executed this practically without fail.
USA’s deep pulling, anti-centering defence, and Japan’s organic yard-eating pull-fielding style
USA’s pulls were all aimed at maximising hang time and distance – and they executed this with brilliant consistency; 9 from 11 of the downwind pulls floating into the back half of the end zone. They would always send one defender down the centre of the field, arriving first and 6/11 times preventing Japan from centering the pull.
Japan’s pull fielding was more organic and variable: Three players hang back; one catches whilst another is in a central position, and the 3rd player either provides an alternative first pass, a continuation / flow option after the first pass, or makes an aggressive move.
Fielding the pull with three players suggests Japan’s aim was to use flow passes to shorten the field, which they largely succeeded in doing – consistently ending up with a shorter field than the USA, despite the USA’s pulls all being deeper. Twice they scored in flow – once taking four passes, including a lateral / backwards open pass, and once from a two-pass play.
2nd level analysis:
USA’s tactic of sending their first defender down the centre of the field to prevent Japan from centering the disc was relatively effective, but Japan fielding the pull with 3 players was a natural counter to this. With 3 players fielding, Japan were prepared to advance the disc past the USA defender who arrives first in the middle of the field, and did so 5/12 times. This was often at the expense of the disc being moved away from the centre, which did not seem like a priority for them, but was definitely one of the USA’s biggest considerations. This organic style & the disc not being centered resulted in a variety of early-point scenarios – Japan’s downfield players seemed comfortable working from these less commonly seen situations, whereas the USA’s downfield defenders would have been unfamiliar defending against them.
Japan did not always take the flow passes open to them – there were 7 times when the disc could have been moved laterally or backwards by Japan, but they only took these options 2 times – once eventually resulting in a score, once resulting in a travel call on the next pass. At no point did a lateral or backwards flow pass result in an eventual loss of yardage, which suggests it’s an option they should have explored further. The 5 missed opportunities to pass laterally or backwards all resulted in flow stopping immediately or on the next pass.
USA’s pull-fielding routine presented the downfield cutters with a static centralised handler situation every time, which allowed the cutters to get familiar with creating plays from that exact situation. Potential yardage gains with extra passes were sacrificed in favour of centralising the disc, which can also result in a longer field to work with; however this plays to their superior deep game, so it works both ways. Japan may have been more aware of this long-field advantage than USA were, hence why they did not chase down the pull at 10-8, encouraging USA to play with a short field.
USA’s relentless routine consistently put them in the position they wanted, so from their perspective was a total success. Japan used more flow passes and resulted in gained yards – which can be viewed on the whole as a success – but questions remain about whether taking more open lateral or backwards flow passes would have resulted in greater yard gains (if this was their aim).
The objective question of “Which is the better routine/style?” is hard to answer as so many variables come into play mid-point. One can not objectively say the disc being centered is a good thing, or more flow or yards are a good thing, as each is dependant upon the team’s mid-point strategy and style. The relevant information we have to compare the two methods objectively is: neither team turned over when fielding the pull or flowing from the pull, Japan scored twice from flow off the pull, and USA won the game 15-11.*
Personally I preferred Japan’s fluid and variable style, but think there is much room for improvement which can make it more effective and harder to stop, such as taking yard-losing passes in order to keep the flow going. Generating fluid looks at the start of points – from random places on the field – is hard to play defence against, but arguably hard to play offence from also. USA seem to have nearly perfected their routine, but its standardised nature has a potential weakness in that the defence know what is coming – a static look from the centre of the field after one centering pass. Whether or not the defence can use this to their advantage is another question for another article – we did see Japan clogging throwing lanes and downfield space at the start of points as they attempted to do so in this match, if you’re interested in how effective they were then check out the full game footage.
* another potentially useful stat would be the number of points each team scored from the pull without turning over, and in how many passes
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